“I hear a note, I have a harmony for it,” says Debrissa McKinney. “I’ve been gifted with ability to hear and to do that. It’s uncanny in a way.”
That knack for harmonization, and way of brightening any stage she graces, has made the 28-year-old an integral part of numerous local groups — from Laura Reed and Deep Pocket to Josh Phillips Folk Festival to Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. “I was just in the studio singing bluegrass harmony for my friends in Red Clay Revival, and this coming week I’ll be working on Jeff Santiago’s rock project,” McKinney reports. “I’ve done everything from R&B to folk to jazz to progressive rock.”
The affection the music community feels for McKinney will be on display at HEALEFEST, a daylong event featuring music and family-friendly activities which organizers hope will offset some of the medical expenses she has incurred in the last year.
McKinney was an actor, dancer, saxophonist, and marching band field commander while attending James River High School in Buchanon, VA. “I think the saxophone taught me to sing,” she says. “That’s why I hear harmonies so well. With the tenor sax you never played any lead parts. The trumpets and clarinets and flutes would carry the lead, and we always had the harmonies. I always sang, and I honed in on it with years of playing the saxophone.”
While she was growing up, McKinney heard her father spin The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder. “And old blues,” she adds. “Old foot-tappin stuff, like black country where they’re all picking and singing the blues.”
For her own enjoyment, McKinney listened to opera and classical music. “I was singing opera in the shower and not really knowing what I was saying,” she laughs. “I listened to everything, and I loved the radio. I listened to a lot of rock music, everything from Nirvana to Radiohead, to REM to the Presidents of the United States of America. I pull from a lot of different influences, rock and jazz and even country.
“If I really love something I’ll go through and sing the main melody, and then I’ll start all over and go back to sing the harmony. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
After attending Hollins University for two years, McKinney moved to Roanoke and began frequenting live music venues — Asheville’s Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band became a favorite. “One time Laura Reed and Deep Pocket were opening for them, and she threw it down,” McKinney recalls. “Laura and I ended up singing together in the corner, and our voices harmonized perfectly. We became friends.
“I said, ‘When you come back next time, not only will I have all the vocals, I’m also going to have all the horn parts.’ She was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Deep Pocket came back, performed the show, and they asked me to join the band that night.”
Though the break-up of Deep Pocket a year later was “tough,” McKinney learned a lot with Reed. “That was a crash course in music,” she contends. “I came in and didn’t know anything. It was like, ‘Now you’re in it, now learn it.’ Everything I know has been like, ‘Watch and learn. This is what I want to do, this is what I don’t want to do.'”
Reed and McKinney sang on seven tracks on Karl Denson’s Brother’s Keeper album. After Deep Pocket, touring opportunities opened up for McKinney with Jen and the Juice, Josh Phillips Folk Festival, Ben Lovett, and Agent 23, and recording projects with Secret B-Sides, Aaron Woody Wood, Adam Strange, Eric Nolander & The Galactic Collective, and Jonathan Santos.
“Every time I’m onstage I’m thinking, ‘This is awesome.’ I’m looking around at all these great musicians, and I’m so blown away, I can’t believe it,” McKinney says. “I get to play with these people? This is work? This is awesome. I don’t think about anything except being happy”
A diagnosis of Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma last November caused McKinney to stop performing for several months. “Nobody deserves to have to go through chemotherapy, but sometimes you have to if you want to live,” she concedes. “I don’t take my time for granted anymore. Luckily I’ve got this time, but I’m not guaranteed any more time, so I don’t want to waste it.
“I really want to do things that I’ve been afraid to do for years. I don’t want to stifle myself anymore. I want to do something good for myself and for everybody else. I want to leave something positive.”
While in demand as a sideperson, McKinney sees herself leading a group someday. “I’m feeling a lot more comfortable these days singing lead, so that is coming,” she confirms. “Agent 23 has been working with me on that. He’s like, ‘I’ll make a lead singer of you yet,’ and he’s been challenging me to write songs. When I have a part singing with his group, when I’m singing my hooks and whatnot, he’s like, ‘Go ahead, right there in the middle, center stage, do it.’ And I’m like, ‘Perfect, thank you, I appreciate that.’ He’s on my team, actually encouraging me, like ‘Okay, you got this, do it.’ So, slowly, over the last few years I’ve been realizing, ‘I can do this.'”
Apart from her other talents, McKinney is an avid disc golf player. Her friends in the disc golf community wanted to do something to help with her significant medical expenses, and devised the HEALEFEST. “They all knew I was going through this thing. They didn’t know what they could do for me, but they wanted to do something,” McKinney says. “I know that I’m probably going to cry, but I’ve been working on a speech, which is extreme for me. I’m a bit overwhelmed to tell you the truth. I definitely feel loved. It’s almost unbelievable to me that people care. That lets me know that I must be doing something right.”